socrates

The killing of Socrates left a stain on the fabric of Athenian society, a stain it nearly expanded 80 years later with similar threats of impiety towards an Aristotle determined not to let Athens “sin twice against philosophy.”[i] This original sin against philosophy has been immortalized in philosophy classrooms for millenniums to come – turning for philosophy the figure of Socrates what for Christian theology is the figure of Jesus. A variety of interpretations concerning the reasons for his sentencing have since arose. The most dominant, though, is that Socrates was killed because of impiety. This interpretation asserts that Socrates was corrupting the youth by shifting them away from the God’s of the state and towards new divinities and spiritualities. This hegemonic reading of his death relies almost exclusively on a reading of Socrates as solely a challenger of the existing forms of religious mysticism in Athens. This essay argues that this interpretation is synechdochal – it takes the part at the top layer to constitute the whole (as if one could explain pizza merely by talking about the cheese). Instead, the death of Socrates is political – he is killed because he challenges the valuative system necessary for the smooth reproduction of the existing social relations in Athens. This challenge, of course, includes the religious dimension, but is not reducible to it. Instead, as Plato has Socrates’ character assert in the Apology, the religious accusation – spearheaded by Meletus – will not be what brings about his destruction.

Our access to the trial of Socrates (399 BCE) is limited to Plato’s Apology of Socrates and Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates to the Jury. Out of these two, Plato’s has remained the most read, in part because Xenophon was not in Athens the day of the trial (making his source secondary), and in part because of the immense prominence of Plato in the history of philosophy. To understand the death sentence, we must thus turn to Plato’s Apology.

The Apology is one of Plato’s early works and the second in the chronology of dialogues concerning Socrates’ final days: Euthyphro (pre-trial), Apology (trial), Crito (imprisonment), and Phaedo (pre-death). Out of the Apology arise some of the most prominent pronouncements in philosophy’s history; viz., “I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” and “the life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Philosophy must thank this dialogue for the plethora of masterful idioms it has given us, but this dialogue must condemn philosophy for its unphilosophical castration of the radical meaning behind Socrates’ death.

In the dialogue Socrates divides his accusers into two groups – the old and the new. He affirms from the start that the more dangerous are the former, for they have been around long enough to socialize people into dogmatically believing their resentful defamation of Socrates. These old accusers, who Socrates states have “took possession of your minds with their falsehoods,” center their accusations around the following:

Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.

Before Socrates explains what they specifically mean by this inversion of making the “worse appear the better,”  he goes through the story of how he came to make so many enemies in Athens. To do this he tells us of his friend Chaerephon’s trip to Delphi where he asks the Pythian Prophetess’ whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates – to which they respond, “there was no man wiser.” The humble but inquisitive Socrates sought out to prove he could not have been the wisest. He spoke to politicians, poets, and artisans and found each time that his superior wisdom lied in his modesty – insofar as he knew he did not know, he knew more than those who claimed they knew, but who proved themselves ignorant after being questioned. Thus, he concluded that,

Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.

This continual questioning, which he considered his philosophical duty to the Gods, earned him the admiration of the youth who enjoyed watching his method at work and eventually took it upon themselves to do the same. But it also earned him the opposite of youthful admiration – the resentment of those socially-conceived-of wise men who were left in the puzzling states of aporia. His inquisitive quest, guided by an egalitarian pedagogy which freely (as opposed to the charging of the Sophists) taught everyone, “whether he be rich or poor,” earned him the admiration of many and the condemnation of those few who benefitted from having their unquestioned ‘knowledge’ remain unquestioned.

After explaining how his enemies arose, without yet addressing what the old accusations referred to by saying he made the “worse appear the better cause,” he addresses the accusation of Meletus, which spearheads the group of the new accusers. It is Meletus who condemns Socrates from the religious standpoint – first by claiming he shifts people away from the God’s of the state into “some other new divinities or spiritual agencies,” then, in contradiction with himself, by claiming that Socrates is a “complete atheist.” Caught in the web of the Socratic method, Socrates catches the “ingenious contradiction” behind Meletus’ accusations, noting that he might as well had shown up to the trial claiming that “Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods, and yet of believing in them,” for, after a simple process of questioning, this is ultimately what Meletus’ charges amount to. Socrates thus asserts with confidence that his destruction will not be because of Meletus, Anytus, or any of these new accusers focusing on his atheism. Those which will bring about his destruction, those which from the start he asserted to be more dangerous, are those leaders of Athenian society whose hegemonic conception of the good, just, and virtuous he questioned into trembling.

Having annulled the reason for his death being the atheism charges of Meletus and the new enemies, what insight does he give us into the charges of the old, who claim he made the “worse appear the better cause?” He says,

Why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?

This passage gets at the pith of his death sentence – he questions the values of accumulating money, power, and status which dominated an Athens whose ‘democracy’ had just recently been restored (403 BCE) after the previous year’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE). This ‘democracy,’ which was limited to adult male citizens, created splits between the citizens, women, children, foreigners, slaves, and semi-free laborers. Nonetheless, the citizen group was not homogenous – sharp class distinctions existed between the periokoi – small landowners who made up the overwhelming majority in the citizen group; the new wealthy business class which partook in “manufacturing, trade, and commerce” (basically an emerging bourgeois class); and the aristoi – a traditional aristocracy which owned most of the land and held most of the political offices.

The existing ruling ideas, determined by the interests and struggle of the aristocracy and emerging bourgeois class, considered the accumulation of money, power, and status to be morally good. These values, integral to the reproduction of the existing social relations of Athens, were being brought under question by Socrates. Socrates was conversing indiscriminately with all – demonstrating to rich, poor, citizen and non-citizen, that the life which pursues wealth, power, and status cannot bring about anything but a shallow ephemeral satisfaction. In contrast, Socrates would postulate that only a life dedicated to the improvement of the soul via the cultivation of virtue can bring about genuine meaning to human life. This is a complete transvaluation of values – the normative goodness in the prioritization of wealth, power, and status has been overturned by an anthropocentric conception of development, that is, a conception of growth centered around humans, not things.

Socrates, then, is not just killed because he questions religion – this is but one factor of many. Instead, Socrates is killed because he leaves nothing unexamined; because he questions the hegemonic values of Athenian society into demonstrating their shamefulness, and in-so-doing proposes a qualitatively new way of theoretically and practically approaching human life. He does not call for a revolutionary overthrow of the aristocracy and for the subsequent installation of a worker’s city-state in Athens, but he does question the root values which allow the Athenian aristocracy to sustain its position of power. Socrates was killed because, as Cornel West says of Jesus, he was “ running out the money changers.”

With this understanding of Socrates’ death sentence, we can also understand why it must be misunderstood. Socrates’ condemnation of Athenian society, if understood properly, would not limit itself to critiquing Athenian society. Instead, it would provide a general condemnation of the money-power driven social values that arise when human societies come into social forms of existence mediated by class antagonisms. Socrates is taught to have been killed for atheism because in a secularized world as ours doing so castrates his radical ethos. If we teach the real reason why Socrates died, we are giving people a profound moral argument, from one of the greatest minds in history, against a capitalist ethos which sustains intensified and modernized forms of the values Socrates condemns.

In modern bourgeois society we are socialized into conceiving of ourselves as monadic individuals separated from nature, community, and our own bodies. There is an ego trapped in our body destined to find its “authentic” self in bourgeois society via the holy trinity of accumulating wealth, brand name commodities, or social media followers. Society provides little to no avenues for an enduring meaningful life – for, human life itself is affirmed only in the inhuman, in inanimate objects. Only in the ownership of lifeless objects does today value arise in human life. The magazine and newspaper stands do not put on their front covers the thousands of preventable deaths that take place around the world because of how the relations of production in capitalism necessarily turn into vastly unequal forms of distributions. Instead, the deaths of the rich and famous are the ones on the covers. Those lives had money, and thus they had meaning, the others did not have the former, and thus neither the latter.

Today Socrates is perhaps even more relevant than in 399 BCE Athenian society. As humanity goes through its most profound crisis of meaning, a philosophical attitude centered on the prioritization of cultivating human virtue, on the movement away from the forms of life which treat life itself as a means, significant only in its relation to commodities (whether as producer, i.e., commodified labor power or as consumer), is of dire necessity. Today we must affirm this Socratic transvaluation of values and sustain his unbreakable principled commitment to doing what is right, even when it implies death. The death of Socrates must be resurrected, for it was a revolutionary death at the hands of a state challenged by the counter-hegemony a 70-year-old was creating. Today the Socratic spirit belongs to the revolutionaries, not to a petty-bourgeois academia which has participated in the generational castration of the meaning  of a revolutionary martyr’s death.

  Notes

[i] Louise Ropes Loomis, “Introduction,” In Aristotle: On Man in the Universe. (Classics Club, 1971)., p. X.

​​Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy graduate student  at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His specialization is in Marxist philosophy and the history of American socialist thought (esp. early 19th century). He is an editorial board member and co-founder of Midwestern Marx and the Journal of American Socialist Studies. ​

Originally  published in Midwestern Marx


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